Football Features

How ‘the most annoying player in football’ Pepe built the defensive wall to end Juve’s Champions League hopes

By Chris Smith

Published: 6:29, 1 January 2021 | Updated: 12:27, 26 March 2021

Against all the odds, FC Porto pulled off an away goals win over Juventus on Tuesday night to reach the Champions League quarter-finals.

Leading 2-1 from the first leg, Sergio Conceição’s men struck again in the 17th minute to give Juve a mountain to climb, Sergio Oliveira netting his fourth goal in seven Champions League appearances this season from the penalty spot. 

From there, Porto dug their trenches, sat in and challenged Juventus to come and get them. It quickly became a war between the Old Lady’s attacking machine, led by lieutenants Cristiano Ronaldo and Juan Cuadrado, and Porto’s defensive unit, marshalled by veteran centre-back Pepe.

Juventus did enough to force extra-time thanks to two goals in 15 second-half minutes from Federico Chiesa, who netted his side’s away goal in the first leg, while a Mehdi Taremi second yellow card for kicking the ball away only served to push Porto further into their own box.

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But the Dragons held out for extra time and, with just five minutes separating the two sides from a penalty shootout, Oliveira stepped up to fire a free-kick home from 25 yards out, ironically hitting it low and between Ronaldo’s legs. Adrien Rabiot immediately replied, heading in a Federico Bernardeschi corner, but it was too little too late for Juve, whose Champions League curse continues for another year.

Evergreen Pepe builds Porto’s defensive wall

38 years old last month, Pepe was the man entrusted with the captain’s armband on Tuesday with the sole remit of stopping Ronaldo and Co. The former Real Madrid man called upon his absolute wealth of experience to not only find himself in the right place at the right time throughout the night, but also command his defensive line with absolute authority.

When Porto needed to get up the field and press, Pepe was the one leading the charge. When they needed to retreat to safety, it was Pepe making the call. Without him, there’s no doubting the Portuguese champions would have remained in their own box, with gaps opening up all over the place for Juve’s considerable attacking arsenal to exploit.

Pepe made a colossal 18 clearances on Tuesday night, at least 10 more than any other player on the pitch and eight more than the entire Juventus team combined. The clearances were complemented by two interceptions, two tackles and two blocks, while his sprint to gobble up the 10 yards between him and Chiesa in the 57th minute, doing enough to make the Italian hit the post from close range, was reminiscent of an 18-year-old.

Juve’s fruitless efforts to catch Pepe out became so absurd that they simply started crossing over and around him instead. Colombian wing-back Juan Cuadrado attempted a ridiculous 32 crosses, with 21 coming from open play and 15 finding their mark. However, only one provided an assist — a wonderful, deep cross to Chiesa to make it 2-1 on the night. But every time he even put the ball near Pepe, the Portugal international gobbled it up and sent it packing right back into the Juventus half.

“He’s been the most annoying player in world football over the past 20 years, without a shadow of a doubt,” Joe Cole said of Pepe during BT Sport’s post-match analysis, and that really sums it up best. While he lacked some of the gamesmanship we’ve come to know him for over the years, Pepe was an irritant in a totally different way for Juventus on Tuesday, reading their attacks to perfection and seemingly teleporting his way across the Porto box to put out fires.

“If I’m coaching at a football club now, I would get these clips and clip them up for every centre-half at the club to watch,” Rio Ferdinand added to Cole’s analysis. Indeed, Pepe set an example his fellow defenders could follow, with centre-back partner Chancel Mbemba making eight clearances, four blocks and three tackles of his own.

Porto will likely be the preferred draw for many of the teams left in this competition. But underestimate them at your own peril. The Dragons have an incredible underdog mentality and with Pepe rolling back the years like this, it’s hard to think of an attacking force capable of breaking down this wall.

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